The beginning of the world as told in the Jewish Bible is a remarkable story. It is a world that seemingly is infused both with the natural and super-natural, where God and man interact regularly: the world was built and then destroyed in a flood, save for Noah and his family, whom God directed to build an ark; Abraham pleads with God to save corrupt cities which are nevertheless pummeled with fire and brimstone.
In the middle of the physical interfacing between God and mankind as well as family drama, the Bible pauses for a few sentence to relay a mundane story. Jacob has a dream.
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃ וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃ וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃…Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and messengers of God were going up and down on it. And standing beside him was יהוה, who said, “I am יהוה, the God of your father Abraham’s [house] and the God of Isaac’s [house]: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring… (Genesis 28: 10-13)
God had already directly given such promise to Abraham while he was awake. It is peculiar that God would choose an elaborate dream with angels on a ladder to convey the same message to Jacob in his sleep.
It is also a curiosity that people today are so fascinated by the story, even more than God talking directly to man. Perhaps it is because God no longer talks directly to people today, even as many of us dream, so we can relate to the story.
Or perhaps it is because Jacob’s dream is the foreshadowing of the life of the biggest character of Genesis, his son Joseph.
Three “Places”, Four Conditions
When the Bible writes about about Jacob’s dream, it repeats the Hebrew word מָּק֥וֹם three times in a single sentence, an oddity. While it can mean “place” it can also mean “God”. It is as though the narrator is telling us that something significant is about to happen, and it is location and God.
The dream is definitely dramatic. While the builders of the Tower of Babel tried to reach the heavens, Jacob actually got to “see” it. While man labored unsuccessfully for years to ascend, angels effortlessly went up and down.
And alongside the ladder was God himself. No one, not even his father and grandfather, had seem Him, but only heard His voice. Now Jacob had a new medium for his connection with God and he chose to concretize the event while awake.
וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃ וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִאשֹׁנָֽה׃ וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֙נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ׃ וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵאלֹהִֽים׃…Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz. Jacob then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, protecting me on this journey that I am making, and giving me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and I return safe to my father’s house— יהוה shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”…(Genesis 28:18-21)
Jacob was awestruck by the event and anointed the rock-pillow he slept on during the dream, but then conditioned his faith in the real world. He asked God for four things to prove Himself before he would accept Him as his God, and then seemingly for God to truly establish his promise of the land for his inheritance.
These four requests set the tone for the remainder of Genesis.
Three Pairs of Dreams
Jacob, the first dreamer, would be followed by his son Joseph. While Jacob dreamed only once and doubted the veracity of what he saw, Joseph seemingly was confident about his two dreams.
Genesis 37:5-11 relays Joseph having a dream which he told his brothers about their sheaves bowing down to his, and then a second dream which he told his brothers and Jacob, of eleven stars, moon and sun bowing to him. While the brothers hated Joseph for the dream, Jacob considered it, as he knew about dreams himself but continued to be unsure whether to embrace a message told in such fashion.
וַיְקַנְאוּ־ב֖וֹ אֶחָ֑יו וְאָבִ֖יו שָׁמַ֥ר אֶת־הַדָּבָֽר׃ So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind. (Genesis 37:11)
The second pair of dreams (Genesis 40) happened in Egypt, as Joseph listened to the dreams of two fellow prisoners, a cupbearer and a baker. This time, Joseph interpreted their dreams which accurately predicted the fates of the two men.
The third pair of dreams happened to Pharaoh (Genesis 41), which Joseph was brought in to interpret. While they had not proven accurate, they rang true to Pharaoh who immediately sought to take action based on Joseph’s interpretation. This is the first time – after seven dreams told by the Bible – that anyone took dreams to be an omen that must be addressed immediately. Perhaps it was because Pharaoh viewed himself like a God who could take complementary action to God’s will. Either way, it was in sharp contrast to the first dream of Jacob in which he conditioned accepting God’s word.
Jacob’s Four Conditions
While Jacob asked God to stay with him and protect him from harm, it was Joseph who really faced numerous life-or-death situations, and survived. From his brothers trying to kill him, sell him into slavery and being cast into an Egyptian dungeon, God stayed with Joseph and protected him from the spiral of events that started from Joseph’s sharing his first pair of dreams.
Jacob’s second condition was about food. That foreshadowed the baker and winemaker who relayed the second pair of dreams in the prison cells of Egypt.
Jacob’s third condition was clothing. After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and gave him a plan for addressing the famine that was to come, Pharaoh put him in charge of all the land of Egypt and dressed him in the finest fashion.
וַיָּ֨סַר פַּרְעֹ֤ה אֶת־טַבַּעְתּוֹ֙ מֵעַ֣ל יָד֔וֹ וַיִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֖הּ עַל־יַ֣ד יוֹסֵ֑ף וַיַּלְבֵּ֤שׁ אֹתוֹ֙ בִּגְדֵי־שֵׁ֔שׁ וַיָּ֛שֶׂם רְבִ֥ד הַזָּהָ֖ב עַל־צַוָּארֽוֹ׃ And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. (Genesis 41:42)
The three sets of dream correlate to Jacob’s first three conditions to internalizing God’s message in his dream. They represent a life for Jacob without Joseph present, as if his favorite son had become a dream. Jacob did not know whether Joseph was alive or dead, much like he wasn’t sure about the dream’s veracity. The three pairs of dreams were divinely inspired as alluded to at the very beginning of Jacob’s dream with the word מָּק֥וֹם appearing three times in one sentence.
Ultimately, the fourth condition, to “return safe to my father’s house,” was the reunion between Jacob and Joseph. When Jacob heard that Joseph was alive his spirit was awakened, as if from a deep sleep (Genesis 45:27). It was then that God reappeared to Jacob – at night again – to go to Egypt to reunite with his son and that God would return him to the promised land. (Genesis 46:1-4)
That action brought the entire family together, and had Jacob – now Israel – believe in God’s promise, setting the future for the children of Israel.
The first dreamer was awe-struck but doubted the dream’s authenticity, setting conditions to accept God. That action set in motion the life of Joseph and the history of the Jewish people.